Monday, 1 February 2010

The Marian Conspiracy written by Jac Rayner and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? Tracking a nexus point in time, the Doctor meets Dr Evelyn Smythe, a history lecturer whose own history seems to be rapidly vanishing. The Doctor must travel back to Tudor times to stabilise the nexus and save Evelyn’s life. But there he meets the Queen of England – and must use all his skills of diplomacy to avoid ending up on the headman’s block…

Softer Six: This is where Colin Baker really comes into his own with the audios. There is something wonderfully innovative about this audio in how it completely re-establishes the sixth Doctor’s character with the minimum of fuss. Whispers of Terror saw a petulant, argumentative sixie but here he is calmer, more adjusted and wonderfully warm and good humoured, a Doctor is would have a been a delight to see on screen but in a way I am glad he is restricted to audio as it is a real feather in Big Finish’s cap. Colin Baker and Maggie Stables have an instant rapport and their chemistry bursts into your ears from their first scene together. I love the domestic scenes in episode one as he follows Evelyn about, simple things like answering the phone, shouting through the letterbox…he comes across as a big brother to Evelyn’s irritated fussiness! He drops names like nobody’s business and is shouted down by Evelyn hilariously as they both try and give their opinion on Queen Mary – he has truly found his match! The TARDIS is his home and heart. He takes up the position of Queen’s physician and indulges in some marvellous religious debates with her and she declares him a wise man. Sarah flirts with him outrageously but he doesn’t seem to notice! Whilst he is a spanking new sixth Doctor throughout the moment I realised we were dealing with a whole new character was during his quiet and haunting admission to Sarah in episode 3, so understated I have quoted it in full below. Mary sees herself as something of a matchmaker and tries to get him engaged! There is no sign of Baker’s bombastic persona here; he seems much more relaxed being afforded such gentle characterisation.

Learned Lecturer: Welcome on board the TARDIS Evelyn Smythe. We have had some perfect matches before (Jamie/2, Jo/3, Sarah/4) but rarely have a Doctor and companion clicked this instantly. Both the sixth Doctor and Evelyn are pitched perfectly to compliment each other and make this audio a joy to listen to. From this story alone it is easy to expect big things from Evelyn and with the likes of Bloodtide, Project: Twilight, Jubilee, Dr Who and the Pirates she does not disappoint. Maggie Stables opens the story impressively, a convincing history lecturer. She is 55, learned and slightly crabby, an expert in the field of Tudor scholarship. She loves knitting, classical music and chocolate. She admits cheekily that she has been led astray in the past but left her husband because he couldn’t understand that wedding anniversary’s come round every year and academic events don’t (somehow I doubt it is as simple as that!). She initially thinks the Doctor is something of a lunatic (an easy mistake to make!) but he soon makes an authentic case to her and they are working together to save her life. She leaps at the chance to explore history, sighs at the nature of boys and charms her way in with the locals. She is practical, well prepared and useful. She appeals to the Doctor’s better nature at the stories conclusion to save Leaf and Crow from being burnt at the stake. You’ve got to love the way she invites herself to join the Doctor at the end of the story. One of the best companion introductions ever.

Great ideas: Jac Rayner introduces lots of important plot points in Evelyn’s first speech – the first episode is so entertaining it might seem frivolous but this is a tightly plotted story with lots of imperative clues scattered about early on.
I loved the Back to the Future vibe with Evelyn’s literal history vanishing from the pages of history books – it’s a great visual image of what is occurring.
The story takes several alarming twists that allows Rayner to educate us without hitting us over the head with a text book. The first cliffhanger is great (‘Baby? The Virgin Queen? History must be going very wrong indeed.’), the Doctor’s conversations with Mary prove to be dramatic and worrying, Evelyn telling Reverend Thomas of her painkillers (poison) and accidentally telling him the Queen isn’t pregnant thus putting his plan to kill her into action all kick the story in new directions. Even the Doctor potentially being Evelyn’s relation has intriguing possibilities for all it’s played for laughs. The final twist that Mary is the would-be assassin is brilliant because it has been so well set up without being too obvious. Mary’s vicious condemnation of Thomas at the conclusion and his refusal to publicly recant tops of a nourishing piece of theatre.

Standout Performance: Anah Ruddin gives a commanding performance as Queen Mary, in turns pitiable, compelling, passionate, thoughtful and terrifying. Mary is such a complex historical character and the script affords Ruddin the chance to really get her teeth into the part. Her scenes with the Doctor are a delight; she puts a forceful case forward for wanting to save the souls of her subjects. The story saves her trademark anger for the final episode and her horrified and vicious reaction to her assassination attempt is well worth waiting for.

Sparkling Dialogue: I’m not sure what is superior, the script or the performances but both are at the top of their game. I could probably recite the whole script but here are my highlights…
‘I find that cake is an excellent solution to so many of life’s problems.’ Oh so true!
‘This country will be Catholic before my death Doctor and no man will stand in my way. I will wipe the Protestant scourge from every corner of England!’
‘What would you say if I were to tell you that I once destroyed an entire race, that I have led friends to their deaths and caused numerous wars. That my intervention has led to peaceful people taking up arms and good people having their faith or reason destroyed. Because I failed to act millions upon millions of people have been enslaved or killed. What if I had done all of those things but had always, always believed I was doing to the right thing!"
‘I told him Mary wasn’t pregnant!’
‘You will burn for this Sarah and may God have mercy on your soul!’
‘She was willing to kill for her beliefs and that’s not good for a country.’

Audio Landscape: Again domestic settings make for an atmospheric audio. Evelyn’s lecture hall and home feel authentic – having real classical music playing s a bonus. There is a crackling fire in the inn and lots of bawdy commoners. Birds sing in rural England, the trees sway and horse clip clop past. The Doctor makes an impressive splash in episode four.

Musical Cues: Again Alistair Lock provides a fine musical score, lots of percussion instruments (there’s even a tambourine rattling in there) and underscores things delightfully. Some great choral work in episode four highlights the assassination attempt at mass and makes things even more nuanced. I love the tune when Mary declares the Doctor’s engagement and the music throughout episode one seems to revel in the Doctor and Evelyn finding each other. First class.

Isn’t that Odd: That I don’t have a single complaint! .

Something I learnt from The Inside Story: The Marian Conspiracy was originally going to be set in Tudor times, starring Peri. Evelyn was written with Maggie Stables in mind, a rare occasion of fitting a companion to an actress and not the other way around. As well as writing the script, Jac Rayner had also taken over as executive producer responsible for Big Finish.

Standout Moment: The Doctor’s admission to having made terrible mistakes in the past. It gave me goosebumps. Baker is astonishing.

Result: A joy to listen to, The Marian Conspiracy finally convinced me that Big Finish was on to something very special. I love historical stories and this script manages to educate and entertain in equal measures and introduces one of my favourite companions in the form of Evelyn Smythe. Maggie Stables deserves a lot of credit for creating such a memorable and fun character, slotting into place next Colin Baker’s Doctor as though she belongs there. The plot is slow but fascinating to listen to unwind and the production is the usual high standards. A huge thumbs up to Alistair Lock who provides the most filmic musical score yet and to Gary Russell who oversees everything with a confident eye. Practically faultless, the one reason this isn’t getting full marks is that Evelyn’s adventures get even better later: 9/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:


ali Servan said...

I love Evelyn, Maggie was an absolute joy, I do miss her.

Robert Konigsberg said...

I pretty much agree with everything you've written, including how difficult it is to put a number on this.

It's sad this is Anah Ruddin's only performance for Big Finish.